Encountering Alterity

Reviewed by Janicke S. Kaasa

Although different in genre and purpose, Janne Korkka’s Ethical Encounters: Spaces and Selves in the Writings of Rudy Wiebe and Allen Smutylo’s The Memory of Water share an interest in the representation of the encounters between the self and the other. Whereas the former is a literary study, concerned with the ethical implications of these encounters, as they are made current in the works of Rudy Wiebe, the latter is a selection of ten autobiographical accounts of Smutylo’s experiences in the Arctic, South Pacific, Great Lakes region, and India.

Janne Korkka, who is a university lecturer at the University of Turku in Finland, has published extensively on Wiebe’s texts. In this book, he explores “the ethics of knowing and the problem of representing alterity” in selected works by Wiebe, with basis in Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics of the “Other” as unknowable, but also in Mikhail Bakhtin’s understanding of language and meaning as fundamentally dialogic. Through his study of several of Wiebe’s novels, short stories and essays, Korkka demonstrates how representation of alterity is a central concern throughout Wiebe’s writing.

Korkka’s study approaches the representation of alterity from different angles. In the book’s second chapter, he explores the “self’s knowledge of itself,” or rather how the self can become unknowable to itself in what are often referred to as Wiebe’s “Mennonite” novels (Peace Shall Destroy Many, The Blue Mountains of China and Sweeter than All the World). Korkka develops the discussion of the alterity of people in chapter three, but shifts his attention to the representation of First Nations in Wiebe’s texts as well as to Wiebe’s own thoughts on the possibility of addressing an Aboriginal other without resorting to reductive images in his essay, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?”

The fourth chapter is concerned with the alterity of space, first and foremost that of the Canadian Prairie. Here, Korkka makes use of examples from The Blue Mountains of ChinaSweeter than All the World and The Temptations of Big Bear to substantiate his claim that Wiebe exposes the Prairie as a landscape that can become knowable by experiencing it through physical interaction, for example by farming. In the book’s two last chapters, Korkka explores further the alterity of space, this time in Wiebe’s writings that deal with the Canadian North. In contrast to the Prairie, Korkka argues, the North cannot be made knowable. Rather, it actualizes an important ethical concern by being “the most radical form of unknowability” in Wiebe’s work.

Korkka’s research sheds new light on Wiebe’s work and succeeds in drawing lines between different texts and genres that have not been drawn before. In particular, his refusal to label Wiebe’s writings as either “Mennonite” or “First Nations” opens up for a discussion of the representation of alterity that complicates and exceeds the familiar Self/Other dichotomy. This point is illustrated by Korkka’s fascinating and convincing reading of silence in Wiebe’s texts, among these the short story “The Naming of Albert Johnson,” as an engagement with the unknowable other. Overall, Korkka’s study is more than “just” a discussion of Wiebe’s work as it also provides new perspectives on the ethical implications of representation, which continues to be a major interest in literary studies.

In The Memory of Water, we accompany Canadian traveler, writer, and artist Allen Smutylo on some of his journeys. The ten stories span great geographical distances as well as a large period of time, from Tobermory in 1970 to Varanasi in 2010. As Smutylo writes in his introduction, these stories share the presence of water, be it oceans, rivers, snow, or icebergs. The stories are humorous and political, personal and historical. Most are thought-provoking and highly engaging. In addition, several of these accounts show signs of Smutylo’s perspectives as an artist with references to viewpoints, colors, light, shadow and movement.

In my mind, it is exactly this artistic view that makes this publication interesting to read. In particular, I was captured by Smutylo’s thoughts on the representation of people and places. These thoughts deal with practical challenges (How to convey the movement of water? How to portray the reticent knifemaker?), as well as issues of a philosophical character, such as when he reflects upon how artists embellish in order to see things in new ways or when he writes about the role of the kayak in his art. Throughout, these ponderings are accompanied and supplemented by Smutylo’s diverse and truly beautiful artwork.

For Smutylo, art is a way of trying to know the other, such as when he makes watercolours “to get the feeling of a new place” in Maui. However, he is also concerned with the places and spaces he cannot reach, but still wants to render in his art. Water is such a space, and Smutylo is “fascinated with the idea of a hidden three-dimensional world accessible to men with boats only in the second dimension. One can float along the top, drop lines and nets into it, probe it with sonar, but one cannot enter. Only in tragedy, when boats capsize and men drown, do they gain access to water’s third dimension.”

In a way, the best of Smutylo’s stories can be said to explore the ethical issues of representing alterity that Korkka is concerned with in his study of Wiebe’s work. More than anything, Smutylo tries to know and represent the people and places he experiences through art. And he does this with a recognition that he might not always succeed. Although aware of the risks of this endeavour, Korkka’s thorough study of Wiebe’s works and Smutylo’s personal accounts remind us how literature and art can provide ways for us to reach towards knowledge of the self and of the other.

This review “Encountering Alterity” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 165-67.

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